By all accounts, both Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook haven’t been having a great year. I don’t even know where to start with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but it was in 2018 that Zuckerberg (and Facebook) had to testify before Congress, and they also got their fair share of flack from the media (us included) on how they handled user data. I mean, it was kind of appalling, so no one should be surprised by this. In addition, there were even calls to throw Zuckerberg out as chairman. But he might be able to breathe a little bit easier today as three new, independent, studies have shown that fake news is going down overall, on his website.
Is it time to rejoice and throw a parade in his honor? Hardly, because it’s Facebook that basically invented fake news, and we shouldn’t reward someone for fixing something the broke in the first place. We can absolutely acknowledge them, and be happy that things are changing, but I don’t think we should be celebrating this fact at all.
But what is going on, exactly? One study conducted came from three researchers at New York University and Stanford. They looked at 570 sites known for spreading false stories between January 2015, and July 2018. They found that interaction with fake news sites rose on both Facebook and Twitter from 2015 to a few months after the 2016 presidential election. After the election, data shows that interactions with fake stories declined by more than half. On Twitter, however, interactions continued to rise.
That also doesn’t mean that we should let Facebook off the hook just yet. Study authors Hunt Allcott, Matthew Gentzkow and Chuan Yu show that “interaction with misinformation remains high, and that Facebook continues to play a particularly important role in its diffusion.” Even considering the drop, fake news interaction on Facebook still averages about 70 million per month. 70 million is a pretty high number if you think about it. Percentage wise it might be moderate for Facebook, but in sheer numbers, that’s a lot.
The University of Michigan’s School of Information Center for Social Media Responsibility took a slightly different approach. It created what it calls the “iffy quotient.” This metric measures how much content from “iffy” sites are actually amplified on Facebook. The team came up with a set of websites that published misinformation and labeled such as iffy. In doing this, the study attempted to define fake news, which posed a bit of a challenge. That said, they were able to tell that the iffy sites had a higher engagement in 2016 on Facebook than Twitter. And now the statistics have reversed.
So while Mark Zuckerberg might be able to breathe a sigh of relief, we as consumers still have to deal with fake news. I should point out that these studies were only based on Facebook accounts in the United States and France. Meaning, the instance of fake news might be higher in other countries, so overall the statistics might not be telling of the bigger picture. Small changes are better than none, so I’m happy to see that happening. Facebook still has a long way to go, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do in the coming month and years.